Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Hotbuckle Theatre at the Helmsley Arts Centre and the Heron Theatre, November 2019.
This was a stunning adaptation of one of Hardy’s most beloved titles. Hotbuckle’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ is small but mighty and at times, despite Hardy’s predilection for morbid plotlines, a humorous production. The cast of four within their minimal set were able to create dozens of locations and characters, driven forward by the direct address narration which helped the audience to connect even further with the story. Tess of the D’Urbervilles had the feeling of a homemade ‘Kneehigh’ production. There was an excellent balance between comedy and drama, caricature and naturalism, and narration and dialogue. The use of music (and the ingenious incorporation of a loop pedal) really helped the audience to become emerged in Tess’s world and the stong ensemble cast packed a mighty punch.
Adrian Preater and Joanna Purslow remained a safe pair of hands throughout the show providing the lion’s share of the narration and comic relief in the form of minor characters. Preater’s turn as the shy milkmaid who didn’t know ‘where to put her hands’ upon being carried across a raging torrent by Angel Clare was a particular highlight. Not to be outdone however, Purslow’s seemingly endless array of facial expressions brought all her characters to life with her dulcet West Country tones lulling the audience into a false sense of security. Preater and Purslow held the show up and invited the audience in. Their prowess for comedy was apparent and their performances were a welcome distraction from Tess’s doomed fate.
Sam Elwin’s performance was a tale of two halves as he portrayed the dashing and innocent (to a point) Angel Clare and the dastardly Alec D’Urberville. For someone playing a character that is essentially a doe-eyed wet flannel, Elwin’s Angel was well-executed, but it was as Alec where he really shone. Devious, sly, conniving, predatory, abusive and privileged Alec D’Urberville should be the obvious villain of the piece. But Elwin’s charm as Alec made it disgustingly difficult to hate him at times (cue cries of outrage from female-kind around the globe). In fact, Elwin did such a good job of not playing Alec like a panto villain that I began to hate Angel more for his bad decisions than I did Alec for his.
The stand-out performance of this production however, was Beth Organ’s portrayal of Tess. Her ability to inhabit the role and deliver Tess’s seemingly idiotic choices as though they were real agonies of conscience was excellent. Her rage on behalf of all womankind when the newly ordained Alec chastises Tess’s ‘immoral ways’ was a masterpiece in acting. When Tess’s heart broke for losing Sorrow and wanting Angel, ours did too. When she was forced to return to the lecherous Alec out of an overwhelming sense of duty to her family, we felt for her. This was an emotionally exhausting role that was relentless, but portrayed with depth, passion and total commitment.
Overall this was a fantastic production which brought together music, storytelling and high-quality ensemble work. I have only one small criticism and that is in relation to the length of the piece. The two halves seemed greatly unbalanced content-wise with the interval falling just before Tess and Angel’s ill-fated marriage. There also seemed to be a couple of superfluous scenes; I appreciate that adapting a behemoth of a text is no mean feat but at times the energy and momentum of the piece stumbled slightly. This is to be expected with a small cast and only three of the actors multi-role-playing. That being said, this was an outstanding piece of theatre that more than did Hardy’s masterpiece justice.